Do you have hope? Are you ready to write this team off a month into the season? From the questions I’ve been receiving, there has (not surprisingly) been a desire to give up on the Red Sox. But the Red Sox did record a significant win last night, taking out their frustrations on the Angels in an offensive explosion. It’s clear, though, that fans are gun-shy about the current team, unwilling to believe too easily, unhappy with its current composition amid an ugly start to the season. It’s easy to understand that.
So can this team come back? It is certainly better than its demonstrated over this first month, as the Red Sox have suffered through uncharacteristic performances from their entire starting rotation, coupled with injuries to two-thirds of their outfield, along with sub-par production from their lineup and defense. The part that has been least surprising to me has been the offense, something we discussed all offseason. If the Sox were to win, they would have to get very good pitching, hit just enough to make it work, and make all the plays in the field. We’ll see if they can turn in that direction, starting now.
As we wait for that, you can read about scheduling questions and Jason Varitek’s offense and Zippy Chippy. It’s a chock-full mailbag, and I hope it will tide you over until tonight’s game, when we can see if Jon Lester really has turned his calendar to May and gotten out of his funk.
So enjoy, and remember to submit your own question for the next mailbag, coming to you two weeks from today. Thanks for reading.
Nick from Mansfield, Mass., asks: Amalie, I have never been a fan of the unbalanced schedule, but this year something stuck out that really did not make any sense. The Red Sox play one of the most exciting teams in baseball, the Minnesota Twins, only five times all season, and are done playing them for the season on May 20th. Conversely, the Sox play their “natural rival” Phillies six times (which is a bit unfair given the Yankees get to play the awful Mets six times, but that is another argument for another time). Never should an AL team play more games against an NL opponent over a traditional AL rival. I would like to see more games with the Twins, Tigers, White Sox, etc. — teams that the Red Sox had traditional rivalries with. If it means cutting the amount of Yankees and Ray matchups to 12 a season, so be it. More matchups with these other teams would help boost their attendance as well. Understanding that interleague will never go away, will we ever see a more balanced schedule going forward?
Answer: That’s hard to say, Nick. It appears that Commissioner Bud Selig isn’t all that interested in incorporating a balanced schedule into the new competitive bargaining agreement, which is set to expire in 2011. That’s too bad. It would be great for baseball to work out the continued kinks with interleague play, which you’ve mentioned, along with getting more teams to face each other. This season the Twins come to Fenway Park for just two games. They did that last year too, and because of a rainout, the Sox played their only series against the Twins in Boston in a doubleheader. I fully believe that should change. It’s really something that is most noticeable with the wild card. If a team from the East and a team from the Central are battling for the final playoff spot, it could make a significant difference which NL team they’ve faced, or who their natural rival is, or whether they played against good out-of-division teams or not. These are all huge factors that catch up in the end, and create imbalance between the clubs. As you can tell, I think that working on some form of realignment and/or addressing some of the issues in an unbalanced schedule is a need for baseball. But I’m not sure I hold out much hope that they will be changed.
Karen from Portland, Ore., asks: Hi Amalie. I have enjoyed following the Globe’s coverage of the amazing story of new Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald. I was wondering if there is any possibility later this season of the Sox honoring the much beloved Zippy Chippy. He does have Mass ties via Northampton Fairgrounds … a rematch of the famous race perhaps, or maybe Chippy and his owner could throw out the first pitch before a game? Knowing how conscious Sox ownership is regarding revenue enhancement, I hope they won’t let this opportunity pass.
Answer: As much fun as that would be to watch, I know that the Sox organization would never let Darnell McDonald have a rematch with Zippy Chippy. There’s just too much of a possibility that something could go wrong in a race of that nature. As for honoring the horse at Fenway Park, that’s another story, though I’m guessing it’s still not something that’s going to happen. (In fact, I mentioned Zippy Chippy to a member of the Sox front office recently, and he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.)
Greg from Brandon, Fla., asks: Like many Sox fans, I’m troubled by our catching defense. Is there any help at any level of the minors, for the near or not so near future? Any truth to the possibility of talks with the A’s for Suzuki? Are they going to wait until Carl Crawford steals 50 in a row against the Sox to do anything about it?
Answer: As you mentioned, you’re certainly not alone in your disappointment and consternation with the Sox’ catching defense. It’s been awful so far this season, as we’ve had to watch baserunner after baserunner make it to second (or third) safely with the throws sailing past infielders. (Though it seems that both Victor Martinez and Varitek have made a slight uptick in this area lately.) At this point, the Sox do have a few minor league catchers with exceptional arms in Luis Exposito and Mark Wagner. The problem is that neither of them is really quite ready for the majors, especially with Wagner now out for six-to-eight weeks with a broken hamate bone. From what I was told by a member of the organization in spring training, Wagner could potentially be ready by 2011, and Exposito is not even that close. With that in mind, it was very interesting to see the Sox sign Cuban free agent Adalberto Ibarra last week. The catcher could earn up to $4.3 million, including incentives, and it seems that he could be groomed to be the Sox catcher of the future.
As for outside of the organization, there’s certainly the possibility that they could make such a move, though it would necessitate drastic changes. They would likely have to make Victor Martinez their full-time designated hitter and send David Ortiz packing. Kurt Suzuki, who is now on the disabled list, would claim quite a bit of their farm system, and I’m not certain that the Sox would be willing to give up enough to get him. This is all particularly interesting given that the Sox chose not to sign Martinez to an extension before this season — and, after watching his deteriorating defensive skills, that may have been an excellent move.
Terry from Rochester, N.Y., asks: Hi. I wanted to know if Mike Cameron is going to have surgery for the sports hernia or are they going to treat him more conservatively. How long is he going to be on the disabled list?
Answer: While possible, it appears more and more unlikely that Mike Cameron will need surgery to repair his sports hernia. He got as far as hitting batting practice over the weekend in Baltimore, and has been able to be more aggressive with his rehab. He has been doing some jogging, and it seems as if his progress has been going well. He did some light tracking of balls in centerfield in Baltimore, as well as yesterday at home. The Sox sound optimistic about him, more optimistic than they sound about Jacoby Ellsbury, which has been interesting. Cameron did tell me earlier in the road trip that he believes that he’ll have to go play for a bit in the minors before he’s ready to return, as he’ll have had a sizable gap before he’s prepared to come back. As for a timeline for his return, there really isn’t one. He is certainly moving forward, but the Sox are going to make sure that he’s absolutely healed before they take him off the disabled list.
Mark Sullivan from Salisbury, Mass., asks: Hi Amalie, do you think Jason Varitek is hitting so well because he is not the starting catcher, and the pressure is off him?
Answer: Mark, I think there is something to the idea that Varitek is hitting so well because he’s not the starting catcher, but I don’t necessarily believe it has anything to do with pressure. As the starting catcher, there’s not a lot of time to spend working on yourself as a hitter. I recall talking to Varitek last season about how often he ended up not having enough time to deal with himself because he was devoting so much time and energy to his pitchers. Knowing the hitters as well as he does, as well as the pitchers, takes a significant amount of his day. So, now that he’s not starting every day, he has more time for batting practice, more time to lift weights — and most importantly, less wear-and-tear on his body. You can’t really overestimate how much it takes out of a person to catch every day. And, in many years, Varitek wasn’t getting day games off after night games, for instance. He would have to catch those, because he was mostly just getting off the days when Tim Wakefield pitched. That only added to the stress on him both physically and mentally. With much of that lifted, that could certainly be responsible for the uptick in Varitek’s production at the plate so far.
Roy from Raleigh, N.C., asks: I have missed some games early on this season. A couple innings here and there was about it until this week. Perhaps it was all just a coincidence that whenever I saw Bill Hall playing the outfield that he looked awful. He came to us advertised as at least “solid”, didn’t he? I never watched him during his early and promising years. He’s been tucked away up in Miller Park. I really don’t know, and you can’t look at a stat sheet to find out entirely how good someone is or isn’t. I also notice his hefty 2010 salary listed, likely leftover from a Brewers’ effort to extend good (at the time) young talented players’ contracts like so many do now. How much are we in to him for, and for how long? Also, I know defense can struggle. Normally a throwing issue or a sudden inability to judge bounces properly. This guy looks like he’s never had it. Granted, he was an infielder and they tried to make an outfielder out of him. Still, what I saw was not pretty.
Answer: I would agree that we’ve seen Bill Hall struggle in the outfield, especially in centerfield. While Hall did play centerfield regularly for the Brewers in 2007, he had played only one inning there since before he started a couple of games there for the Sox. He has primarily been an infielder over his career, and played shortstop coming up, with some time spent in all three outfield positions. (Not that he looked great when he filled in at shortstop earlier this season.)
His notable moment was probably crashing into the bullpen wall in Fenway Park as a centerfielder, with the ball dropping beyond his glove for a home run. It was probably a catchable ball for a better fielder. But, ultimately, the problem isn’t entirely with Hall. While he would certainly rather start every day, that wasn’t the role for which the Sox acquired him. They wanted him to serve as a suitable backup at a number of positions. He has played more than the Sox likely ever anticipated, already having appeared in 16 of the team’s first 26 games. That’s not a function of how highly the Sox regard Hall. That’s much more of a function of how many injuries the Sox have sustained. With two of their three starting outfielders on the disabled list for much of the season so far, that has led Hall to be in the lineup more, and to be slightly exposed, though it is still a small sample size. As for his salary, that is almost entirely being paid by the Brewers, so that’s not a huge burden to the Sox. Of his $8.4 million salary in 2010, $7.15 million is being paid by Milwaukee. (That amount originally went with Hall to Seattle from Milwaukee, and then on to Boston.) There is a $9.25 million option for 2011, with a $500,000 buyout, with the Sox certain to decline the option.
Justin from Osterville, Mass., asks: Hello Amalie, I don’t understand why Big Papi doesn’t embrace the idea of sharing the DH duties with Mike Lowell. It seems selfish on his part to get upset with the team when he is not in the line up. So my question is why are stars so selfish and not for the team?
Answer: I’m not sure what you do for a living, Justin, but can you imagine your boss coming to you and saying that your work product isn’t good enough and your colleague will be getting the chance to do your duties and get the glory? Perhaps that comparison doesn’t quite work. But the point is that David Ortiz was a very good player for a half-dozen or so years in the major leagues. He has a lot of pride, in himself and in what he does at the plate. He doesn’t want to admit that his skills are diminishing and truly believes that he can turn it around. It’s not easy for anyone, in any walk of life, to admit that they’re not what they once were. That goes for Ortiz too. These players have had to be selfish for a long time in order to get where they are. They want to continue their success. I completely understand why Ortiz isn’t happy about the situation, even if it might be what’s best for the club.
Arthur from Mill Valley, Calif., asks: To us fans who watch on TV, sit in the stands, and read the papers, this team lacks a spirit, an identity, and the kind of unity needed to excel in the toughest division in MLB. To be blunt, they’re bad and boring. But what the fans see and what the players know can be two different things. As a reporter with access, what is the feeling inside the clubhouse about this edition of the Red Sox? And if I may be permitted a bonus question: What is the feeling in the front office? Do Theo and Trio “get” that the fans aren’t buying the “run prevention” mantra and see it only as a euphemism for “a bridge” to what now seems like nowhere? Thanks for your insights.
Answer: It’s a confused and conflicted clubhouse, Arthur. There are certainly a number of players who are frustrated with their situation, mostly due to lack of playing time, or their performance. While I wasn’t at last night’s blowout of Anaheim, there has been a distinct lack of joy in the clubhouse — an unsettled feeling after wins and an unsettled feeling after losses. They believe that they’re better than what they’ve shown, that they surely should have won more games, especially against bad competition. It appears that there is hope among the players, but it’s something that could quickly go downhill.
In many ways this is a bridge year, though a slightly different bridge than what everyone thought Theo Epstein was talking about. It’s likely going to be the final year for a number of Red Sox veterans with the team, a bridge to the next generation. Varitek, Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz are all in the final years of their contracts, and Tim Wakefield has one year left. In other words, it’s a team in transition, and right now it’s a very uneasy transition. That, of course, can all change with one winning streak.
Sean from Pelham, N.H., asks: Now that Lars Anderson has gotten off to a rocket start in AA and has been promoted to Pawtucket, what does that mean for his immediate future if he continues his early season success? Would he only find a spot on the major league roster this season if the Sox were to dump/trade David Ortiz if he continues his ineffectiveness?
Answer: Lars Anderson has definitely come back strong from a disappointing 2009. But I would caution that it’s early. Anderson still needs to figure out Triple A before the Sox considering bringing him up to the majors. The Sox are going to give him some time in Pawtucket to let him adjust to the new level. I’d be surprised if Anderson joined the Red Sox much before September. There is always a chance, mostly based on need, but given what Anderson has been through, I think the Sox will be slightly conservative with him.
David from North Carolina asks: Amalie — Scenario: V-Mart is the DH and Varitek is catching. So the starting pitcher gets ripped in the third inning and it’s obviously time for Wake to get some extended work. Varitek has made it clear he wants no part of the knuckleball. So would Tito (A) use everyone else in the pen, even if they needed time off; (B) have Varitek suck it up and deal with it for several innings; or (C) Have V-Mart catch and eliminate our DH for the game. And by the way, who is the emergency third catcher?
Answer: Actually, I wouldn’t say that Varitek has made that clear. I talked to him about the possibility of catching Wakefield last week, and he seemed open to it. Even though he has caught the knuckleball for one inning since 2005, Varitek knows that he might have to be behind the plate with Wakefield. He caught a side session last week with Wakefield, in fact, and has worked with him occasionally. It certainly won’t be easy for him, and I’m sure it’s not his favorite thing to do, but he understands that it might happen sometimes.
“Take some adjusting, seeing him in the game again,” Varitek said, on Friday. “You just have to be back there with him, and get through some innings with him. You’re going to catch some, you’re going to miss some. Hopefully you catch more than you miss. It takes some adjustment.”
I then asked him if he was having nightmares about returning to work with the knuckleballer. Varitek smiled and said, “My nightmare was that my first major league start was with him. You add in normal, everyday butterflies to doing something you’ve never done before, but we survived.” At some point, I’m sure you’ll see the two of them paired.
Dana from Los Angeles asks: We have seen Hermida, Hall, Van Every on a regular basis , absent Cameron & Ellsbury. I would love to see Josh Reddick get a few starts. He was near the top of major league baseball hitting this Spring. He covers ground defensively. He needs the consistent ABs at the Major League level. Why not throw him in now?
Answer: The Sox tried that. Boston brought up Josh Reddick from the minors for a short period, then replaced him with Jonathan Van Every after just four games. They decided that they didn’t want to get in the way of Reddick’s development by having him sit on the bench and get sporadic at bats. Reddick remains a young player, even though he has shown the team flashes of his ability, both in the majors and in two consecutive excellent spring training performances. But they believe that there’s more for him to work on, and that he needs time in the lineup and at bats to get there. So that’s what he’ll get in Triple A, rather than empty time in the majors.
Michael from Singapore asks: Do you think that the Red Sox were as prepared for the opening day as much as they could be? I believe that the purpose of spring training is to ensure players are ready on opening day. There were a number of examples where the current starting rotation were pitching in minor league training games while players not on the major league roster were pitching in major league spring training games. What a missed opportunity to face major league players. There were a number of major league position players who rested in spring training games and missed playing against major league pitchers. I can’t help but think that this lack of preparation is costing the Sox now.
Answer: I think this is something that happens to teams. Perhaps we all overestimated the abilities of the players on this year’s Red Sox team. Perhaps the injuries to the outfielders crippled the team’s offense. Perhaps there is something mechanically wrong with Jon Lester every April. As you’ll recall, the Rays got off to a horrid start last April, going 9-14. Were they unprepared? Were the Sox — with much the same coaching staff and management — that much more prepared last season, when they went 14-8 in April? Or when they went 16-8 in 2007?
They were, most likely, just a better team. The Sox have often done things like letting a starter pitch against minor leaguers instead of majors leaguers at some points in the spring. It actually doesn’t matter who a pitcher is facing in the spring, at least for the pitchers already guaranteed to make the team. The staff isn’t watching to see who gets a hit off Lester or Josh Beckett in a spring training game. They’re looking to see their fastball command, or their changeup. The pitchers are building up pitch counts and shoulder strength — the results don’t matter. So if you’re looking for a reason that the Sox have struggled to open the season, I’m not entirely sure that I would blame it on preparedness.